Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nanowrimo Prep:: Your Best Idea

Okay! How did everyone do on their idea lists?

So now that you have this – hopefully – vast list of ideas, how do you choose THE idea for your next (or first) book?

Obviously, if this is a contracted book, you talk it over with your editor. If it’s a spec book, you talk it over with your agent. Absolutely mandatory.

But that’s a whole other post. Today I’m dealing with choosing an idea for a spec book, not necessarily contracted. And how to fine-tune ideas before you talk to your agent, and/or how to decide if you DON’T have an agent.

There are lots of methods. It happens differently for me every time. But here’s the bottom line:

You already know which is your best idea.

Oh, come on, of course you do. You KNOW. Either you already know and you know you know, or you already know and you are pretending you don’t know.

If you already know, and you know you know, great! We’ll get to you in the next post. But let me deal with the others today.

For those of you who say you really, really DON’T know, many shrinks would put it to you this way: What story idea would you be working on if you DID know which was the right one?

Answer that question without talking yourself out of it, and that’s the one.

I am a big believer in this. But if your connection with your intuition or your Higher Power or however you want to put it has been a little off lately, or maybe for all of your life, try one or all of these exercises to coax it out.

- Meditate.

- Just before you fall asleep at night, ask yourself what story to write, and see what you dream, and/or what you wake up thinking in the morning. Keep a pad or tape recorder beside the bed so you can write or talk as soon as you wake up.

- Ask yourself the question in the shower or while swimming or running or working out.

- Spend a whole day free-form writing and see what comes out.

- Write a logline for each of your promising ideas and run them all by at least three people you trust and see what lights them up. If you don’t know how to write a logline, we’ll get to it in the next two posts.

- Set aside a day (you know, one of those 24 hour things I’ve heard so much about), and brainstorm index cards and see if your story takes off. And if you don’t know how to work with index cards, that also will be one of the next two posts.

- Pay attention to signs. Even if you don’t believe it, spend a day or two acting as if you believe the Universe is talking to you all the time, and it will tell you your best story idea if you listen – to songs, to random bits of conversation, to newspaper articles on precisely the topic you’re thinking about writing about, to the movies that come up on TV that night, to e mails or Facebook postings that come out of nowhere. If you’re going to be a writer you’d better get comfortable with synchronicity because you’re crazy if you think you can write a book without it.

The way I really know what to write is when the entire world around me is giving me clues. Like when I keep getting into random conversations with strangers that turn out to be exactly what my book is about. Like when I am on a plane writing a scene about rum, and I walk off the plane and the first thing I see on the causeway is a rum bar (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a rum bar). Like when I am having no luck Googling the specific information I need on rumrunning during Prohibition and that night the History Channel has an hour special on rumrunning during Prohibition. Like when I meet a person on the street or see someone on television and realize THAT’S one of my main characters that I had been struggling to define. Like I decide to set a story in the Bahamas and suddenly get two offers of pretty much free trips to the Bahamas. And no, I'm not kidding, It works.

So if you need a little time to get that divine nod, go ahead and take it. Listen to what your subconscious, or the universe, or the elves, or WHATEVER is telling you, and report back if you feel like it. And then we'll really get down to work.

- Alex


Halloween is coming and that means I’m doing all kinds of events, as usual. This weekend:

-- Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 10:30 am (PST): Suspense Radio interview

I’m talking to John Raab of Suspense Magazine on Suspense Radio; John’s also interviewing the marvelously funny and talented Paul Levine at 10 am.


Sunday, October 2, I’m signing at the West Hollywood Book Fair, and teaching a FREE Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop from 12:30-2:00 pm.

-- West Hollywood Library & West Hollywood Park
647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA

FREE Admission & FREE Parking


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


Previous Nanowrimo Prep posts:

- Do You Know What Your Next Book Is?

- First, You Need an Idea

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nanowrimo Prep: First, You Need an Idea

I know, I know, it's not even October yet, but I've started my Nanowrimo prep series early this year because a month just never seems to be enough time. And who knows where I'll be by the end of October, so I don't want to leave anyone hanging.

Now that I've explained Nano here, we'll start at the very beginning, with generating that perfect idea - because this is a part of the writing process that people rarely spend enough time on, and is CRUCIAL if you want to develop a riveting book, even more crucial if you have any hope of being paid to write. You are going to spend TWO YEARS of your life, minimum, on this book (and that's truly a minimum). Don't you think you better be sure this is the right book to write before you start?

And, oh yeah - the same process is going to apply to scripts, too, and I'll make sure to differentiate when it's important.


First, you need an idea.

When people ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?”, authors tend to clam up or worse, get sarcastic - because the only real answer to that is, “Where DON’T I get ideas?” or even more to the point, “How do I turn these ideas OFF?”

The thing is, “Where do you get your ideas?” is not the real question these people are asking. The real question is “How do you go from an idea to a coherent story line that holds up – and holds a reader’s interest - for 400 pages of a book?”

Or more concisely: “How do you come up with your PREMISES?”

Look, we all have story ideas all the time. Even non-writers, and non-aspiring writers – I truly mean, EVERYONE, has story ideas all the time. Those story ideas are called daydreams, or fantasies, or often “Porn starring me and Edward Cullen, or me and Stringer Bell,” (or maybe both. Wrap your mind around that one for a second…)

But you see what I mean.

We all create stories in our own heads all the time, minimal as some of our plot lines may be.

So I bet you have dozens of ideas, hundreds. A better question is “What’s a good story idea?”

I see two essential ingredients:

B) What idea gets you excited enough to spend a year (or most likely more) of your life completely immersed in it –


B) Gets other people excited enough about it to buy it and read it and even maybe possibly make it into a movie or TV series with an amusement park ride spinoff and a Guess clothing line based on the story?

A) is good if you just want to write for yourself.

But B) is essential if you want to be a professional writer.

As many of you know, I’m all about learning by making lists. Because let’s face it – we have to trick ourselves into writing, every single day, and what could be simpler and more non-threatening than making a list? Anything to avoid the actual rest of it!

So here are two lists to do to get those ideas flowing, and then we can start to narrow it all down to the best one.

List # 1: Make a list of all your story ideas.

Yes, you read that right. ALL of them.

This is a great exercise because it gets your subconscious churning and invites it to choose what it truly wants to be working on. Your subconscious knows WAY more than you do about writing. None of us can do the kind of deep work that writing is all on our own. And with a little help from the Universe you could find yourself writing the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Also this exercise gives you an overall idea of what your THEMES are as a writer (and very likely the themes you have as a person). I absolutely believe that writers only have about six or seven themes that they’re dealing with over and over and over again. It’s my experience that your writing improves exponentially when you become more aware of the themes that you’re working with.

You may be amazed, looking over this list that you’ve generated, how much overlap there is in theme (and in central characters, hero/ines and villains, and dynamics between characters, and tone of endings).

You may even find that two of your story ideas, or a premise line plus a character from a totally different premise line, might combine to form a bigger, more exciting idea.

But in any case, you should have a much better idea at the end of the exercise of what turns you on as a writer, and what would sustain you emotionally over the long process of writing a novel.

Then just let that percolate for a while. Give yourself a little time for the right idea to take hold of you. You’ll know what that feels like – it’s a little like falling in love. (We’ll go more into this in the next few days.)

List # 2: The Master List

The other list I always encourage my students to do is a list of your ten favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing, or if you don’t have a premise yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written.

It’s good to compare and contrast your idea list with this IDEAL list.

This list of ten (or more, if you want – ten is just a minimum!) – is going to be enormously helpful to you in structuring and outlining your own novel.

Now, the novelists who have just found this blog recently may be wondering why I’m asking you to list movies as well as books. Good question.

The thing is, for the purposes of structural analysis, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X-ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.

It’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel, which makes looking at films that are similar to your own novel story a great way to jump start your novel outline.

And just practically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of classic and blockbuster films and the film techniques that got them that status can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.

And even beyond that – studying movies is fun, and fun is something writers just don’t let themselves have enough of. If you train yourself to view movies looking for for some of these structural elements I’m going to be talking about, then every time you go to the movies or watch something on television, you’re actually honing your craft (even on a date or while spending quality time with your loved ones!), and after a while you won’t even notice you’re doing it.

When the work is play, you’ve got the best of all possible worlds.

So go make your lists, and I will, too, and let’s talk about some of your results this week.

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

Monday, September 12, 2011

Nanowrimo: Do You Know What Your Next Book Is?

Fall is my favorite season. Maybe it’s that Halloween thing, maybe it’s the “back to school” energy, maybe it’s the Santa Ana winds that were so much a part of my life growing up in Southern California that I made them a character in The Space Between, maybe it’s just that you get a jolt of ambition because it gets cooler and your brain returns to some functional temperature.

Because it’s sort of ingrained in us (whether we like it or not), that fall is the beginning of a new school year, I think fall is a good time for making resolutions. Like, about that new book you’re going to be writing for the next year or so.

Myself, I have so many books to finish right now that I can’t let myself think about any new ones until I get at least ONE more done. I’ve taken the idea of multitasking to a near-suicidal extreme. But I’m not complaining – not only do I have a job, I have my dream job.

However, given what I blog and teach about, I am aware that this is a perfect time for OTHER people to be thinking about THEIR new books. Because, you know, it’s September, but November will be here before you know it.

I’m sure many if not most here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.

I could not be more supportive of this idea – it gives focus and a nice juicy competitive edge to an endeavor that can seem completely overwhelming when you’re facing it all on your own. Through peer pressure and the truly national focus on the event, Nanowrimo forces people to commit. It’s easy to get caught up in and carried along by the writing frenzy of tens of thousands – or maybe by now hundreds of thousands - of “Wrimos”. And I’ve met and heard of lots of novelists, like Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), and Lisa Daily (The Dreamgirl Academy) who started novels during Nanowrimo that went on to sell, sometimes sell big.

Nanowrimo works.

But as everyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not a big fan of sitting down and typing Chapter One at the top of a blank screen and seeing what comes out from there. It may be fine – but it may be a disaster, or something even worse than a disaster – an unfinished book. And it doesn’t have to be.

I’m always asked to do Nanowrimo “pep talks”. These are always in the month of November.

That makes no sense to me.

I mean, I’m happy to do it, but mid-November is way too late for that kind of thing. What people should be asking me, and other authors that they ask to do Nano support, is Nano PREP talks.

If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1? I am pretty positive that in most cases far more writing, and far more professional writing, would get done in November if Wrimos took the month of October – at LEAST - to really think out some things about their story and characters, and where the whole book is going. It wouldn’t have to be the full-tilt-every-day frenzy that November will be, but even a half hour per day in October, even fifteen minutes a day, thinking about what you really want to be writing would do your potential novel worlds of good.

But you know what? Even if you never look at that prep work again, your brilliant subconscious mind will have been working on it for you for a whole month. (Cause let’s face it – we don’t do this mystical thing called writing all by ourselves, now, do we?).

So once again, I'm going to do a Nano prep series, but this year as you can see I'm starting even earlier. But I'll be gentle, just to get you all thinking at first, and hopefully get some people not just to consider Nano this year, but to give them a chance to really make something of the month.

Here's the first thing to consider:

How do you choose the next book you write? (Or the first, if it's your first?)

I know, I know, it chooses you. That’s a good answer, and sometimes it IS the answer, but it’s not the only answer. And let’s face it – just like with, well, men, sometimes the one who chooses you is NOT the one YOU should be choosing. What makes anyone think it’s any different with books?

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time. Not only that, but if you're a professional writer, you're pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time. You're writing a minimum of one book while you're editing another and always doing promotion for a third.

So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months with its world and characters, but it's going to have to hold your attention while you're working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time. You're going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and almost antithetical to writing (promotion).

That's a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen?

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.

As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. I’m not allowed to turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.

If you are writing a series, you're even more restricted. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place. Now that I’m doing a couple of paranormal series, I am learning that every decision is easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it’s also way more limiting than my standalones and I could see how it would get frustrating.

Input from your agent is key, of course - you are a team and you are shaping your career together. Your agent will steer you away from projects that are in a genre that is glutted, saving you years of work over the years, and s/he will help you make all kinds of big-pitcure decisions.

But what I’m really interested in right now is not the restrictions but the limitless possibilities. I'll get more specific next post.

How DO you decide what to write?

And even more importantly – How do you decide what to READ?

Because I have a theory that it’s actually the same answer, but we’ll see.

I'm off to Bouchercon,, the World Mystery Convention - paneling on Thursday, partying the rest of the time. I mean, you know, networking.

Happy Fall, everyone...

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE